Paul May

What I Learned at Pixar

05 July 2010

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with the folks at Pixar; in the run up to the release of Toy Story 3 I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on my visit. Short version: Pixar are awesome.

The wonderful atrium at Pixar; a huge, open space that greets you as you enter the building. It's like an incredibly classy shopping centre (mall)
In March I spent a wonderful week in the Bay Area meeting with creative and innovative companies; field-trip as part of the excellent Cross Creative programme. One of those companies, Pixar, needs no introduction - they have been responsible for some of the most successful, emotional, evocative and beautiful films of the past two decades and it was very, very exciting to have a chance to visit them.

Enabling Creative Teams

At Pixar we met with Dr. Michael B. Johnson, who runs the Moving Pictures Group; the team responsible for building the core tools used by directors, writers and artists to take an idea from inception up to the point where 3D animation begins.

The Moving Pictures Group’s work is a big deal; each project brings together a team of people, a diverse set of tools and thousands (many thousands) of physical and digital assets; the Moving Pictures Group build and support the software to bring these things together to “allow creative people to be creative, then leave them alone” as Michael B. Johnson put it.

The company’s project management tools, storyboarding tools and asset management tools are all created in-house based on continuous feedback from creative teams. These tools are designed to offer a smooth, integrated experience; reducing waste and cost. Reducing waste is as important to Pixar as it is to any company trying to compete in a competitive market.

Contrast this approach with the approach of many animation studios where a huge amount of work is outsourced to mange costs; Pixar don’t outsource any part of their process.

Being Amazing Takes Time

The Pixar website does a pretty good job of outlining the company’s creative process; but essentially everything begins with one person (usually a director) - whose core job is to formulate, explore and develop a great story. Once a story has been pitched and shaped somewhat the director will usually be joined by an art director to explore visual ideas, and then this little team will scale up to 8-10 people as the story is refined and storyboarded. The team builds and builds until it’s in production - when hundreds of people will contribute to the final film.

This all sounds quite mechanical, but typically a project will spend 2-3 years in pre-production; moving from concept through exploration and into a script, storyboards; exploration is meticulous. For example, directors will build or commission prototypes of characters, props and sets - sometimes asking their favourite artists to explore ideas in two and three dimensions - because just drawing something on paper doesn’t offer a clear sense of movement and physicality.

We were fortunate enough to see (but not photograph) a jaw-dropping array of exploration work; my favourite was a blown up version of Lou Romano’s colour script for the film Up; the colour script allows the director to plot mood, colour and shape across key scenes of a film.

This type of exploration isn’t unique to Pixar; many other animation companies carry out similar activities as they explore the development of stories - but as with all the other things Pixar do, the quality of the company’s exploration is second to none; the exploration is as thorough, careful and crafted as the films themselves.

Summing Up

It was an inspiring few hours at Pixar, and in a way I’m glad it’s taken me this long to sit down and reflect on the experience. At this distance, it is pretty clear to me that the success of Pixar’s films hinges on a few simple-to-understand but probably-impossible-to-emulate factors:

So; easy-peasy. Let’s all put the kettle on, dream, explore, iterate and learn. (p.s. I want to work for Pixar)

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  • Paul May is a researcher, interaction designer, and technologist from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on smart health applications.